Today in the Spirit: Proper 14A

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This week we continue with Jesus on the move in his ministry, now hearing the account of the miracle of his walking on water. At mid-Pentecost in both Year A and Year B the church assigns this reading following the feeding of the 5000, just as it is described as immediately after that event in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The assigned Collect includes the bold petition, [Almighty God] “make us love what you command.” From the Matthew 14:22-33 version of the walking on water narrative, we hear the addition of Peter himself seeking to leave the boat and come to Jesus walking on the sea.

The assigned OT reading and Psalm both give us images of God sovereign over inundating waters: From the reading of the song of Jonah in Jonah 2:1-10, we can relate the lyrics of the poem to those Peter too might have said sinking in the water on the way to Jesus, I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me (1); from Psalm 29, we will recite the words of “David,” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever (10). In the assigned NT reading from Romans 9:1-5, we hear the beginning of Paul’s plea that the Roman Christians understand his personal yearning for the salvation of his kinsmen according to the flesh (3), the Jewish people.    

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The Collect

Almighty God, give us the increase of faith, hope, and love; and, that we may obtain what you have promised, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Out of the Belly of Sheol (Jonah 2:1-10)

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice (1-2).

For Jonah, we note, surprisingly, the heart of the seas is Sheol (the Hebrew word for death and separation from God, often paired with images of deep waters) and the belly of the fish is salvation from YHWH. Clearly, the Book of Jonah as a whole intends to demonstrate that, while the prophet may have been grateful to be delivered from a punishment he deserves for disobeying God, he still does not want to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to the city. In fact, we get the impression from this poem that Jonah might have preferred to stay with the fish rather than be vomited out to carry out the original mission. Jonah fails to recognize his own hypocrisy (neither here nor later in the incident with the vine): he is grateful for the mercy shown to him by a loving God. However, he would deny that the same mercy should be extended to the pagan city of Nineveh. (See the parallel prayer to the LORD from Jonah later in 4:2).

What can we learn from this devotionally? Again–that question I often ask–What is God up to here? One thing to note is the willingness of God to work with his people even when we are at our most stubborn and wrong-headed. When you or I are the ones selected to do a hard task, there is nothing stopping the mercy and justice of Jesus from getting us to the finish line. We can be simultaneously grateful for self-preservation and hard-hearted toward others, and God will remain. What counts in this story of Jonah, and for us, is the covenant relationship of God with his people. The Book of Jonah has no moral written into the end of it, but we could very well supply one from Jesus’ teaching: I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

Today, Holy Spirit, I stand convicted of my own hypocrisy and pride over certain things, like Jonah with the Ninevites. By the strength of your inviolable bond to me through Jesus Christ, complete the work you have designed for me to do.  

The Voice of the LORD Is over the Waters (Psalm 29)

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
</>The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
    and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
    the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth
    and strips the forests bare,
    and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
    May the Lord bless his people with peace!

We are physically, after all, mostly water. So what if we look at the waters in the psalm as our bodies? “Dear Lord, you behold the desolation inside and outside me. The stagnant still everywhere is a decaying rust. Suddenly, into the waste you come, overwhelming the silence with the boom of your voice like a terrible thunder, and chasing the darkness with blinding lightning. I can feel it! You are changing the atmosphere on top and clearing the soaking rot underneath. The sight and sound of the Sun renew the wilderness of Kadesh in my inmost parts. The strongholds of oaks I have set up to cover my unrelenting shame and guilt over disobedience done by me, and to me, you strip bare with every new word he speaks. Each day knows your healing. And, O, how you have unlocked my heart. Out of your temple in me, never quite destroyed by inundation, cries of “Glory” can be heard with ever-increasing volume, my own shouting further encouraged by my hearing others now exulting the same–Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, our new worship now heard in all the universe–Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength! 

Today, in the Spirit, Jesus, I hear the sound of your voice over the waters, giving me new strength and blessing me, all of us, with peace. 

From Their Race…Is the Christ (Romans 9:1-5)

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

Paul’s great love for his people, the Israelites, carries him far into passionate feeling and concern, but–and here we must note–never too far. The apostle’s greater devotion to the God of Israel and Christ Jesus is demonstrated in the last line: and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. He may say he could wish to be accursed and cut off (one Greek word anathema for both), but he won’t. Where before his conversion, he chose the identity of Israel over the claims of Jesus of Nazareth, now he will not; and as other verses in the next two chapters of Romans make plain, Israel is blatantly disobedient to the One God who came to them and must suffer for it. The clear choice Paul is making for his prime allegiance, Christ over Israel, is one we might wonder is lacking in our society, Christ over America. We Americans may indeed feel the USA is a blessed country, nothing less than “a city set on a hill” (John Winthrop, 1630), but to whatever extent that may be true in the end we must choose following the Lord Jesus over preserving the heritage of our nation. We may recognize in America, like Paul does for Israel, any amount of special blessing from God, but let us never fail to forget the day we too, each one of us in our own way, were thrown off our horses so as to hear the call of the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever

Today, in the Spirit who is in us pleading that we make Jesus Christ our first love, follow the example of Paul to choose him first over yourself, your livelihood, your career, your family, and your nation.

Command Me to Come to You on the Water (Matthew 14:22-33)

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (28-31).

What could Peter possibly have in mind in making this demand to Jesus? The conditional if it is you sounds like it might be a challenge to Jesus to prove his identity. No, Peter is challenging himself, his faith in what he now believes about Jesus of Nazareth to be true. By all accounts in the Gospels Peter seems to be a little ahead of the curve in acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God (see the narrative of his confession in Matthew 16:16). So too at this point, before everyone else, he will say, Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. He will not simply declare his faith but test himself in it. As a matter of personal devotion, we need to ask ourselves if we are ready to do the same. Will we think to ourselves, “Jesus is Lord,” confess it with our mouths, then sit on our hands in the boat? Or, will we say “Lord, let me come to you where you are in that hard place”? For Peter the only real concern (at least at the outset) is not the wind and the waves, or even the preposterous idea of walking in the water, but only whether  Jesus will let him come. 

Today, Holy Spirit, under the conviction you give me that Jesus Christ is alive and present, empower me to go beyond my idle confession of faith in him, and ask if I might join him in the hard places where he has gone before and now stands waiting.   

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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